“You can’t play that part.”
“You can’t write that story.”
If you spend too much time on the internet, you might be under the impression that the concept of appropriation and ardent activists who view it as a cardinal sin have completely backed actors and writers into their own personal backgrounds in the performing arts.
It’s true that casting is definitely done more carefully (or with more care) than it once was – and that a cultural consultant industry is booming in dramaturgy circles so X playwrights can write about Y without fear.
But there has concomitantly been a rise in stage actors exploring other identities in performance in fresh ways and playwrights playing around with current-day expectations regarding voice and authenticity.
Two Canadian plays currently on stage in Toronto are fine examples of how theatre hasn’t become all black and white – and that blurred lines still exist. As it happens, Black and white theatre artists co-created both plays: Body So Fluorescent, on at Buddies in Bad Times, and Maanomaa, My Brother, on at Canadian Stage.
Body So Fluorescent (co-produced with b current and madonnanera) is a solo show starring Amanda Cordner, the Black actor now best-known for playing the gender-fluid character 7ven on CBC’s Sort Of; Cordner wrote the play with director David di Giovanni, a white man.
As with many recent contemporary plays that jump right into the minefield of race and representation, Body So Fluorescent is hard to describe without spoiling some of the surprise about how it unfolds.
Cordner initially plays a character identified in the published script as Mess. They – a pronoun I’m using in this case to be cagey – are a mild-mannered, somewhat sheepish individual retracing their steps after a night out drinking and dancing.
Mess is, indeed, a mess: Mascara smeared, club clothes all a tangle, hair a mix of the actor’s own short, black (and Black) hair and misplaced straight blonde extensions.
So who is this meek person trying to figure out what exactly they said last night that triggered their best friend Desiree, who’s now not returning their calls?
Early in the show, Mess code switches and introduces herself as the extremely confident Shenice. “Make way for this Black woman!” she shouts on her way to the dance floor to shake her spanx-covered “big booty.”
But as Body So Fluorescent continues – and here I’ll put in a proper spoiler warning – the audiences learns that Shenice is the alter ego of a white gay man named Gary.
The reason that Desiree, Gary’s Black female friend, stormed off was that his cosplay as a woman of colour at the gay club crossed a line – or crossed a line beyond a line beyond a line.
Desiree – also played by Cordner – gets the second half of the play to speak her mind. Her views on Gary/Shenice are quite complicated: She confesses that she is not only appalled by the racial caricature her friend becomes after a few drinks, but is sometimes amused by her, and at others times jealous of her – wishing, on one level, that she could be out there sucking her teeth at whoever gets in her way, too.
Cordner’s performance as Gary/Shenice also demonstrates compassion for his/her identity crisis; it’s a deliciously theatrical nesting doll: A Black actor playing a white man playing a Black woman. (Or, so it seems; the last line of the play might change your perception once again.)
Maanomaa, My Brother, which is at the Berkeley Street Theatre upstairs in a co-production with Blue Bird Theatre Collective, is more a traditional piece of theatre in form, a two-hander co-created Tawiah M’Carthy and Brad Cook with Anne-Marie Donovan.
The story is about Kwame (M’Carthy) and Will (Cook), old friends who reunite in Ghana in the lead up to the funeral of Kwame’s grandfather.
Kwame, who is Ghanaian and now teaches in Canada, and Will, a white Canadian who grew up partly in Ghana, were close enough to call one another “brother” when they were boys – but a tragedy drove them and their families apart two decades earlier, one revealed in flashbacks of their childhoods.
Maanomaa, My Brother is a touchingly told tale that sees M’Carthy and Cook, both talented physical performers, morph into many other characters in addition to their main ones. There would be nothing all that notable about this were it not that, in Cook’s case, most of those others characters he is playing are Black and the actor is white.
Cook doesn’t act Black characters with dramatic devices such as a frame or quotation marks around them (as in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, recently seen downstairs at the Berkeley directed by M’Carthy, in which a number of white actors play white characters playing Black caricatures); he simply uses the regular actor’s tools: changes in voice and mannerism.
This is startling for a moment given contemporary theatrical trends and leads to some interesting moments such as when Kwame gets off a plane, back home in Ghana, and is approached by a series of Twi-speaking taxi drivers who want to take him into town, all played by Cook. Toronto theatregoers have seen a variation of this scene many times before on stage – the regularly produced Helen’s Necklace by Carole Fréchette comes to mind – but usually with a white actor playing the deplaned visitor and a racialized actor putting on an accent to play the local cabbie.
The race reversal here could be a commentary on that trope – or it could just be a scene in a play. Though this lovely, simple show, directed by Obsidian Theatre artistic director Philip Akin, is about appropriation in its own way, too: How much does Will, who has felt adrift and out of place since his family moved back to Canada, have a stake in Ghana and in Kwame’s life and griefs?
Co-written plays, in their form, ask us to question the new assumptions about who has the right to write what character or what dialogue – and how anyone can actually discern authenticity in authorship from the audience, anyway.
In the playwright’s notes for Body So Fluorescent, Cordner and di Giovanni write: “Writing together is as easy as breathing.” That’s now a radical statement.